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Space Exploration Technologies Corp.'s (SpaceX) Starlink satellite internet constellation plans to launch a staggering amount of satellites by the end of February next year reveal the company's filings with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). SpaceX's Falcon 9 medium-lift rocket uses frequencies used by government agencies for communications with ground control centers and recovery vessels, and to secure authorization for using these frequencies, the company is required to inform the FCC who then coordinates with the agencies.
These filings list down a total of 21 requests from the company's end, which see their time periods start from the start of last month and end in early March next year. Given that SpaceX has not launched any satellites either in July or this month, it's likely that these time periods will extend beyond March, depending on the company's supply chain situation for its satellites and a rocket propellant.
Delayed Launch Schedule Should Push Starlink Launch Cadence Ahead By At Least Two Months
Out of the 21 requests for Special Temporary Authority (STA) that SpaceX has filed for Starlink with the FCC, more than two-thirds have their starting periods listed for either July or August. Since the last Starlink launch took place in May, and SpaceX generally requests an operational period of six months for its STAs, it is clear that the company's plans of rapidly building out its satellite constellation have been delayed.
SpaceX's latest STA request, for the Starlink 6-8 mission from the United States Space Force's Vandenberg base in California lists down its operation start date for early September and end date for early March. Crucially, the FCC has granted authority for all of SpaceX's 21 requests, so it is entirely up to the company to decide its launch cadence and frequency.
Assuming that all of the 21 Starlink launches take place before the last STA expires in March, then SpaceX will have to average more than three launches per month if it wants to stick to its schedule.
Additionally, and more importantly, if the company does manage to pull off 21 launches in just six months, and it uses all launches only for Starlink and not for other, commercial small satellites, then it will have launched a staggering number of satellites that will end up nearly mirroring the amount currently in orbit. This cadence will require four launches in three and three launches in the remaining three months. SpaceX has regularly achieved this pace, as it launched four missions in both March and May this year alongside three launches in April.
The Falcon 9 allows SpaceX to launch 60 Starlink satellites per launch, and 21 launches without other payloads will let the company put 1,260 satellites in orbit. The second stage of Starlink's phase one buildout consists of roughly 1,600 satellites with the same orbital parameters as the first stage.
However, whether these satellites will feature optical or laser-based communications systems is uncertain. According to recent statements made by SpaceX's chief operating officer Ms. Gwynne Shotwell, the company will launch all future Starlink satellites with lasers on board.
These additions are crucial for her company's plans to provide internet connectivity to not only remote regions inside the United States but also to other countries. The Starlink network's current design involves transferring the data between the end-user and internet servers by using satellites that connect to the user terminals, or dishes, and relay the data to ground stations.
Laser communications between the satellites remove the need for these ground stations to an extent, and Ms. Shotwell's comments indicate that SpaceX's tests with the satellites have been successful. The company has already launched test laser satellites, which it confirmed in November last year, and it also launched more laser satellites in January.
These satellites are also a part of Starlink Gen2 satellites, which the company initially asked the FCC to authorize in May last year. These will not only feature lasers but will also operate at lower altitudes than the current satellites and have higher data capacity and throughput.